A Few Words on Social Combat and the Like

In the midst of unapologetically ragging on Savage Worlds, I noted that one of the drawbacks of the system, in my mind, was the lack of Social Interaction rules in any significant form.  It was only later that I realized that I was likely speaking some form of Greek to the average role-player.

It’s been my experience in most games that the first section that needs to be scrutinized in the system is the way that Combat is conducted.  The flow of conflict is an important aspect of any game, as it determines how much time and effort needs to be devoted to resolving an encounter.  If the system is filled with charts and derived numbers, the combat might be extremely detailed and realistic, but it’s going to take the better part of the night to deal with a single fight between reasonable sized groups.  If the game is slanted towards tactics, there’s going to be a need to have map grids and miniatures to better visualize everything, else it’s all going to go awry.  And if everything is pushed in a more story-driven direction, combat is likely going to focus on abstract narrative elements, leaving the damage tables and the grid maps completely out of the mix.

The amount of options a given system has for combat also factor into how the game is supposed to be run.  A game like Savage Worlds tends towards fast and loose arbitration, where the player characters are generally expected to be able to win any given encounter without a great deal of worry.  Exalted offers a rather detailed combat system, but it allows a fair amount of narrative freedom, which lets the godlike characters slide through harder encounters if they have a stylish reason to be able to pull off the maneuvers well enough.  On the other end of the scale, you find yourself in systems like Call of Cthulhu, where the characters aren’t optimized for combat and the scale of the enemies simply dwarfs their capabilities.  The emphasis in games like this shifts toward being able to think your way through a situation, rather than rush blindly into a fight.  And given the source material, it only makes sense.

So how does the Social angle of things work into this?

A little bit of personal history, if you would.  Much of my narrative GM’ing style comes from the games of the early to mid-90’s, when the miniatures-oriented game design of the early years started to be expanded.  Whereas many of the early games were derived from miniatures combat (and therefore tended to be combat driven), the games of this era started working toward the idea that non-combat characters could have roles within the context of battle, even if they weren’t worth a damn swinging a sword or firing a gun.

For me, the eye-opener was Torg, where non-combat actions were rolled into combat through the use of the Drama Cards.  If a character were to stand on the sidelines and taunt the villain, the distraction of their commentary had a concrete effect on the villain, making it easier for the other characters to be able to defeat him.  This showed up in subsequent games, here and there, to the point that it started a sort of sub-system in some RPG’s, where there were additional rules for ‘Social Combat’ in other areas of the game.

The other notable aspect of Torg was that, because these rules were in place, a combat-focused character was still able to be defeated by other means.  Even if they’d maxed out the requisite stats in a way that made it impossible for regular mooks to do real damage or even hit the character, they were still vulnerable to Mental and Social attacks that could incapacitate them.  The best example of this ended up being the ridiculously powerful Tharkoldu Cyber Demons, who combined the unbalancing effects of cyberware with … well, being demons.  They had extremely high physical stats, armor and spiritual powers.  What they didn’t have was any way to cope with being taunted, to the point that a character with sufficient skill and luck could theoretically put them down for good with a well timed and deeply personal verbal assault.

Up to this point, a character was either built to be worth a damn in battle or built to be useful in the library.  To have both was generally unthinkable and / or the realm of pure munchkinry.  With Torg (and many of its descendants), it was possible to have a bookish character that could hold their own through their smarts or a social character that could use their persuasion in a wider venue of circumstances.

Exalted took this entire theory to its logical conclusion, putting together a system that paralleled physical combat by codifying social maneuvers in a similar manner.  Where a duel between master swordsmen would entail a certain amount of circling and testing for weakness before striking at a vulnerable point, the Social Combat rules tried to put these same sorts of actions into play within the realm of conversation.

The problem was that it didn’t quite work, as written.  Over the years, I’ve made a point of testing social builds in the various RPG’s that allow it, and while Exalted made a fine go of it, there were very specific problems.  For one thing, it tended to abstract the flow of conversation to the point that actually using the rules while role-playing required the player and GM to pause in the midst of witty repartee and roll dice.  In that way, it felt like the only real way that the Social Combat could be used would be in a completely abstracted way (“I’m going to verbally attack him, using my Investigate Skill to probe for weakness.”  –  “Roll your Manipulation and Investigate.  If you get three or more successes, you’ve discovered his love for horse racing.”), and this idea struck directly against the more narrative aspects of Exalted, with its Stunt System.  While it was an interesting idea overall, it honestly felt like there needed to be another pass of playtesting before releasing it into the wild.  And considering that there’s a whole tree of Lunar Social Charms that take advantage of these rules, the unfinished nature allows the system to break entirely, handing a stupid amount of power over to competently built characters played by people who know what they’re doing.

Finally, there’s Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, which tries its damnedest to replicate the intrigues of the books in its Social Combat system.  While I love Exalted in unnatural ways, I have to note that this is a system that has managed to do it correctly.  The intrigues in ASOIAF are both simply designed and effective, as they can cause characters to act against their own best interests because they were seduced into a course of action by a skilled master of deception.  The system has layers of complexity as needed, but compared to the vaguely disruptive ways in which Exalted handled it, it makes a lot more sense.

To my perspective, this is the way modern games are structured.  When combat was all that mattered, that was the only focus that skills and attributes got.  Over time, however, game design came to reflect the subtler nuances of the gamer palate, where talking to ones adversaries became less of an outlier and more of a commonplace act.  Yeah, combat is still the core of any system, as there needs to be a mechanic of some sort to resolve conflict, be it physical or otherwise, and this often serves as the skill resolution system as well.

As such, the throwback nature of Savage Worlds continues to mystify me, as it presents itself as a modern game for the current generation of gamers, even while it ignores the innovations that have come about since the early days of gaming.  It’s only made worse by the fact that Deadlands itself had built in enough variance that a Social character could easily hold his own in combat in that system.  And that aspect of the game design was completely lost when the new system took hold, meaning that it had to have been a conscious decision.

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Posted on May 9, 2014, in Current Games, Older Games, Systems Discussion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Well, Savage Worlds is not a modern game for the current generations of gamers. It is fast, little game for old hobby grandpa’s, who doesnt’ have time to build big worlds and overly complicated campaigns. Hence Plot Points campaigns and loose, very granural mechanic, so you can sit, quickly create your munchkin hero and go on a rampage.

    How long did you play Savage Worlds? It is not by any means game where players are expected to easily win any combat encounter they have. In fact, it is extremely easy to wreck party of combat sociopaths, if they’re playing without tactical thinking. If the GM is prepared and the players are not, there will be usually one conclusion – TPK.

    • The length of time I’ve spent playing Savage Worlds is not the important thing to focus on. The number of chances that I’ve given the game, only to have it disappoint me, is what holds my contempt.

      I’ve tried; I honestly have. I poured a sizable chunk of money into the early products (unless one considers a half-dozen or so of the hardcover books and around $250 to be inconsequential; it’s a fairly minor section of my Library, but there’s a reason I call it a Library in the first place), and I’ve played in a scattering of games over the years.

      And the reality is – whether I’m going through the rules in a vain attempt to give it a second chance or sitting down to play in someone’s game – the system is just terrible. No matter what happens, I’m always wishing I were playing something else.

      If I wanted miniatures-based nonsense with a minimum of options outside of combat, I’d pull a Pathfinder book off the shelf and go with that. If I wanted simple and quick, I’d work up a Fate game of some manner. And none of the settings are intrinsically tied enough to the system that they couldn’t be quickly converted over to some other set of rules. There simply isn’t a niche that Savage Worlds tries to occupy that isn’t done better by some other game system.

      • Well, reality itself and sells rates shows clearly that there is strong niche for Savage Worlds to occupy. Pathfinder is different game with different feel. Fate isn’t answer for quick and simple – it is about players and GM’s controlling the story. In fact Fate is quite complicated to understand in terms of aspects and stunts. It doesn’t matter if the setting is intrinsically tied to the rules or not, because it is not a factor tha influence quality of the setting in any way. Besides, that is exactly the point in Savage Worlds – to allow easy conversions.

        Number of chances you given to SW doesn’t have any meaning, it is the time that is essential. Do you delved deeper into the rules to understand them, or just skipped them slightly and – under strong wish that you wanted to play somethinbg else – never give thought? And I believe that is the point here – judging from your original assumptions that SW is modern game for modern gamer (whatever that means anyway) or that game is builded like D&D/Pathfinder, where players are expected to always win. No and no.

        I observe a lot of nonsensical hate for SW. I would like to know why some people have such problems with not so different way of rolling dice (because in the end it’s almost always just probability distribution and nothing else). Purely academical thing as it’s not my-go to system for everything.

  2. Wow, really? This is worth this much time and effort for you?

    Okay, fine. Let’s parse some of this, shall we? (Awful grammar or typos, aside.)

    “[…] reality itself […]” See, you’re already off to a weak start on this.

    Savage Worlds has a niche. Fine. There are also people who bought games like Synnibarr, Senzar, and Fatal. They constitute a niche as well. It’s a pretty meaningless distinction.

    Just because you and your friends buy a terrible game, that’s not actually enough to merit any praise. And it certainly doesn’t speak to the actual quality of the game. And as to the niche being strong… yeah, no.

    But just for a moment, let’s entertain this idea.

    Looking back at the Kickstarters that Pinnacle has done for its games, the truth becomes really evident really quickly. If it’s not Deadlands related (or Rifts, oddly), there isn’t very much interest. The two most recent ones, Goon and Fear Agent, only managed about $30K each. One of the Deadlands plot point books pulled nearly twice that.

    But here’s the funny thing: The Deadlands 20th Anniversary Edition? $180K For a game that has been out of print for over 15 years. Shall we talk about what “strong niche” means? Because I have the feeling you’re using a different definition.

    And yeah, Rifts was pretty big. But it is pretty clearly an exception. As it stands, none of the general titles for Savage Worlds manages to break 1,000 backers on Kickstarter.

    Meanwhile, D&D 5e manages to sell that many books a day on Amazon. On a bad day.

    So, with that out of the way…

  3. Before I go any further, let’s go back and revisit some basics, shall we?

    I’ve already laid out my distaste for Savage Worlds in depth in my post, Two Thousand Words (May 8, 2014). My reasons, while clearly not to your liking, are hardly nonsensical. I have laid out why I think the CharGen is terrible, the Attributes are meaningless, and the dice system is – at best – illogical. And I’ve offered examples of why I have come to this set of conclusions.

    All of this is based upon my experience with the game. And my long years of experience with other game systems and gaming in general. In fact, I even addressed that at the end of that post. And I quote:

    “What’s interesting to me is that, while researching public opinion on Savage Worlds, I found that most people assumed a dislike was due to inexperience with this system or others. For my part, I’ve got the opposite problem. I’ve played enough games to know when one is inferior.”

    Let me go back and make that idea crystal clear: I have better games to play. I have games whose rules I prefer and whose settings far outstrip Savage Worlds. I have games that actually integrate game concepts from the last 20~30 years. These games do things that Savage Worlds does not, and that is why I play them.

    My question to you becomes this: Why in six hells would I want to devote more time to a game that I clearly do not like? Don’t you think that I have better things to do with my time than to waste them on something I don’t like, something my friends don’t particularly like, and that takes time away from things we enjoy?

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